The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 remains, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, a seminal event in the history of the twentieth century. And it is not merely because it was not a typical insurrection but because it signaled a historic change like no other.
Compared with such historical events as the removal of the monarchy, albeit for a brief period, in England by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century, the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, the political change in Russia can justifiably be regarded as the harbinger of a new order that was to have long-term effects worldwide.
Where revolutions prior to what the Bolsheviks, or Communists, caused to be brought about in Russia were by and large changes that left power in the hands of the aristocracy or, as the case might be, the oligarchy, the happenings of 1917 were the very first indication of political power actually passing from traditional ruling classes to common citizens.
Of course, there is the irony too, in that Karl Marx had not bargained for the kind of change he advocated and envisaged to take place in a monarchist Russia. Then again, as discontent began to brew against the Romanov dynasty, there was in the early phases of the gathering storm little hint of Vladimir Lenin and his band of Marxists eventually taking over the state in the name of Russia's workers and peasants.
By early 1917, the Romanovs were in trouble, as agitation over prices and political repression claimed increasingly wider swathes of territory. Czar Nicholas II abdicated in February and what followed was a series of chaotic moves by the bourgeoisie, symbolized by the likes of Alexander Kerensky, to put a new political order in place. Kerensky was part of the February Revolution but was too weak and too young to hold the country together through the various positions he held between the royal abdication and the Leninist triumph of November 7 (October 25 by the Old Standard calendar).
All these decades after the triumph of the Bolsheviks in Russia, it makes sense to recall the reasons why the 1917 Revolution was a game-changer for the world. It was an event which sent fears rushing through the ruling classes of Europe, engaged as they were in the First World War. The revolution effectively marked a withdrawal by Russia from the war, which was another worry for Europe, where memories of the chaos engendered by the Napoleonic conflicts of the early 19th century yet lingered. The Russian Revolution certainly did not threaten the world beyond the frontiers of the country, but it surely worried those deeply upset at the overthrow of the monarchy and the emergence of a political system which promised all political power to the soviets, the committees the working classes had begun to form and administer as a way of implementing the changes the Bolsheviks advocated.
The fall of the Kerensky regime on October 25 was a happenstance Lenin was unwilling not to derive advantage from. He had for weeks been urging his colleagues to seize power in Petrograd. When power did come to the Bolsheviks, he was swift in the formation of a government, which formally was for him and his associates a transfer of power to the soviets through ratification by the Second Congress of Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. Lenin, who had been away from Russia for a good length of time prior to the change in 1917, spending time writing theses and reading in libraries abroad, was acutely aware of the fact that his fledgling revolution could not be exported to the Europe which lay beyond his country's borders. Even so, he did call for an immediate end to the war that had ravaged the continent in the preceding three years and followed it up by appeals to the working masses in Europe to initiate moves to have their own socialist governments in place. The priority for the Bolsheviks, however, was a consolidation of the revolution at home. They had seized power in Petrograd, but there was yet the country out there to be drawn into the socialist cause.
There was a caveat, though, which was Lenin's advocacy of the idea that a transition from capitalism to socialism necessarily had to pass through a mid-point he and his colleagues --- among whom were Trotsky, Stalin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin and others --- defined as the dictatorship of the proletariat. The dictatorship was fundamentally the first step toward a construction of the socialist edifice, a weapon with which the old capitalist order, epitomized by its decaying political institutions, would be smashed before political and economic leadership could come to rest permanently in the hands of the toiling masses. The proletarian dictatorship theory was given a fillip when on 26 October, a day after the Communist takeover, Lenin publicly announced two decrees the Bolsheviks believed would add substance to the revolution.
The first was the Decree on Peace, an appeal to European governments to bring an end to the war and take steps toward a 'just, democratic peace'. The second and surely the more important was the Decree on Land, through which Lenin urged Russia's peasants to go for radical reforms of the agrarian sector. It was one of the first hints of how the Communists planned to direct the revolution to its desired ends. The land and everything in terms of property it was comprised of, it was argued, now belonged to the people. Land, it was emphatically stated, was henceforth to be the property of the state and the state was, yes, the people. Purchase or sale or mortgage of land was therefore a vestige of the past, irrelevant to the new era.
The two decrees were quickly followed by others. In essence, they would serve as the legal basis for the new government to function on. It was but natural that such measures were taken, for the revolutionaries, unused to governance or strangers to the process of administering the state, were fully cognizant of the need for substantive policy measures if the revolution was to reach every home in every village of the country. Besides, there was the war from which Russia had to be extricated. On 3 March 1918, the Bolshevik government concluded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It gave the new rulers of the country much needed breathing space. A few days later, the government decided to move the seat of power from Petrograd to Moscow. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) was finally on its way to establishing what its rulers called a class or proletarian dictatorship.
It would be naïve to suppose that everything went smoothly for Lenin and his team. In the vast landscape that was Russia, the process of socialist change encountered and even invited chaos when the property of the aristocratic classes was seized in the name of the state. Among the Bolsheviks themselves, disputes arose over a future constitution for the state and the role of political parties. Besides, the New Economic Policy of 1921 was a desperate measure to steady an economy weakened by the armed conflict in Europe and post-Bolshevik civil war. Questions of ideology would in time, especially after Lenin's death in 1924 --- he was only fifty three --- grip the Communist Party, with power eventually passing into the hands of Joseph Stalin. The purges Stalin initiated in the 1930s were without question a deviation from the revolution and so was the assassination of the exiled Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. But it is equally true that under Stalin and despite the Terror he presided over, Russian --- the state was by now known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or the Soviet Union through the assimilation of other republics into the revolutionary fold --- clout increased enormously on the global stage.
On Stalin's watch, Moscow played an instrumental role in the defeat of Nazism in 1945, raising itself to the status of one of the two superpowers on the globe, the other being the United States. Soviet power, especially through its domination of Eastern Europe and such technological advances as competing with the Americans in the race to the moon, became increasingly more pronounced under Nikita Khrushchev and the troika of Brezhnev, Kosygin and Podgorny which succeeded him in 1964. By the late 1960s, however, the revolution appeared to be losing its way. The suppression of attempts at democratic reform in Hungary in 1956 by the Warsaw Pact nations, led by Moscow, had not been forgotten. Yet a similar exercise was undertaken in Czechoslovakia in 1968 when Alexander Dubcek inaugurated Prague Spring, his campaign to give communism 'a human face'. Eleven years later, in 1979, the decision to invade Afghanistan and install a communist regime in Kabul took a bad toll on an already haemorrhaging economy in Moscow.
The post-Brezhnev leadership of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, in that order, was too brief and too wheezy both were ailing old men who died not long after taking power --- to permit a return to the original principles of the 1917 Revolution. When it came his time in 1985, the initially inspirational Mikhail Gorbachev made mistakes which an exercise of prudence and pragmatism on his part could have avoided. His twin program of glasnost and perestroika, openness and restructuring, only hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. Worse, it opened, under Boris Yeltsin, the doors to an ugly capitalism clinging to the rise of an unabashedly corrupt oligarchy.
By the early 1990s, the Soviet Union had receded into the past. And yet there cannot be any denying that the Russian Revolution of 1917 signified a monumental transformation in history. For the very first time in the annals of mankind, power was truly and effectively transferred from the decadent forces of royalist and capitalist exploitation to the working classes. The revolution inaugurated a political movement that would over the decades, against a background of the rise of Lenin and his fellow Communists, be diffused across continents and countries. The rise of the Communists in China in 1949, the emergence of Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1959, the growth of socialism in Africa and Latin America, the battle for a socialist order in India and Bangladesh were all a natural corollary to the momentous changes engineered in Russia by the October Revolution.
That revolution remains a shining instance of the ability of socialism to change the world through empowering citizens with the right to forge and reshape and reorder their destinies.
The October Revolution was a potent expression of the dignity of life, of human self-esteem.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and columnist